Home The Washington Diplomat April 2009 South Africa’s Zuma InspiresBoth Admiration, Concern

South Africa’s Zuma InspiresBoth Admiration, Concern


By month’s end, both the United States and South Africa — for the first time together in history — will be headed by black men.

Yet Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, representing the African National Congress (ANC) in elections scheduled for April 22, is not exactly the Barack Obama of politics when it comes to honesty and ethics in government. But neither is he a corrupt despot like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or an enemy of capitalism like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

That’s the consensus of experts who are closely watching the rise of Zuma, 66, as the leader of South Africa’s ruling ANC and clearly the country’s most powerful political figure.

Still, the party’s two-thirds majority in Parliament is under threat from the Congress of the People (COPE), a new party formed late last year by breakaway ANC members loyal to the ousted former president, Thabo Mbeki. Though no one seriously doubts that Zuma’s ANC will win the election, COPE has at least eroded the ANC’s grip on power — having dominated the political discourse since the end of apartheid in 1994 — and reignited debate over corruption, crime and poverty.

Even so, Zuma has won the tacit support of another former South African president — 90-year-old Nelson Mandela — who surprised ANC stalwarts with his attendance at a Feb. 15 election rally in his native Eastern Cape province.

One man who knows Zuma quite well from the days of ANC exile is Welile A.W. Nhlapo, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States. Zuma has “a record of struggle,” says Nhlapo (pronounced Ne-KLA-po).

“He’s always dedicated himself,” Nhlapo told The Washington Diplomat. “He’s known for being a very effective peacemaker within the country. There’s never been a time when Zuma declined to do anything because his personal interest came first. He’s never been that kind of person, despite whatever other problems he might have had.”

Those “problems” include an accusation of rape by a former staffer — for which Zuma has since been acquitted — and several corruption charges currently pending. Zuma did admit, however, to having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman at the center of the rape case. And his subsequent statement that he took a shower afterward to prevent possible infection earned him further ridicule, especially among women — though perhaps not among the several wives and girlfriends that Zuma, an unabashed Zulu traditionalist and polygamist, “officially” keeps (unions that have produced some 18 children at last count).

“Regardless of what the evidence shows, the cloud remains and it leads many people to have misgivings about the integrity of the next president,” said Peter Lewis, director of African studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Said Nhlapo: “There was a [rape] case, he was tried, and he was found not guilty. So to refer to that matter is really raising a dead issue. You should argue about other things.”

And as far as the pending corruption charges (which prosecutors are considering dropping), Nhlapo said “the attitude that’s been adopted by the ANC is that Zuma will still be the candidate. He himself has said that if he’s found guilty, he’ll step down. But he’s pleading his innocence and fighting the charges. The opponents say they want to take the matter to the constitutional court to bar him from taking office because he has been charged. But there’s nothing in the constitution that prevents that.”

Nhlapo, a native of Johannesburg, served as South Africa’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the Addis Ababa-based Organization of African Unity, taking up his current position in Washington about a year and a half ago.

“We have 146 political parties, and maybe only five will make it to Parliament,” the ambassador said, noting that as a civil servant, he cannot advocate the interests of the ANC or any other specific party. Even so, he added, “I am going to vote, and I know which party I’ll vote for.”

Last October, just before Obama’s historic election victory, Zuma came to Washington to meet U.S. officials, investors and academics. During his visit, he addressed a standing room-only crowd of more than 200 at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“South Africa is a relatively young country. We are just about to complete 15 years of democracy. Nevertheless, we believe we have made a good start, first because we were able to achieve change in South Africa in a manner that not many people expected,” he said.

“Over the years, we have matured politically, and we have confidence in addressing the issues. The question of negotiation was critical. We did many things the liberation movement did not do at the beginning,” Zuma continued. “We have included every political entity in South Africa as part of that process. We did not seek to exclude others. This could only be done by people who knew exactly what they were doing.”

That’s a bold statement for someone whose political career was practically written off barely three years ago.

Born in 1942 and brought up by his widowed mother in Zululand, the future ANC leader — who had no formal schooling — joined the outlawed liberation movement at 17 and became an active member of its military wing three years later.

Convicted in 1963 of plotting to overthrow South Africa’s white-ruled apartheid regime, Zuma was jailed for 10 years at the same Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. After his release, Zuma went first to Mozambique, then Zambia, where he moved up the ANC ranks. In 1990, when the ANC was finally legalized, he returned to South Africa and last December replaced former South African President Thabo Mbeki as the party’s leader.

Tony Leon, a former South African opposition parliamentarian who was most recently with Washington’s Cato Institute, describes Zuma as a “kind of a mixed bag” — with his share of good and bad qualities.

“Zuma is ethically challenged, because he has unresolved corruption charges to deal with. He’s also very much beholden to the populist forces of South Africa’s broad left,” Leon told The Diplomat. “He’s poorly educated, and something of a traditionalist. On the other hand, he is much more comfortable in his skin than Mbeki was. He’s neither intellectually pretentious, nor does he suffer from the racial demons which haunted Mbeki.

“To some people, he’s a reversion back to big-man African politics,” Leon added. “But I don’t think he’s authoritarian or undemocratic. That’s not to say the corruption and cronyism characteristic of the Mbeki age will not be replicated by his successor. I think the biggest problem with Zuma is that he’s got these dubious ethical issues.”

More important, according to Leon, are the serious problems confronting South Africa: massive unemployment, violent crime, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the huge income disparity between rich and poor, despite South Africa’s healthy investment climate.

“The driving factor of white, colored and black emigration out of the country is violent crime,” Leon said. “South Africa is the third-most violent country in the world after Colombia and Venezuela. The difference between Zuma and Mbeki is that Mbeki used to contest the reality of the crime situation, whereas Zuma acknowledges that it is the greatest threat to democracy.”

Indeed, crime is rampant in the country of almost 48 million — and not just crime, but violent crime, with robberies accompanied by slicing, garroting and other appalling acts. But with the global financial crisis, the economy of Africa’s most developed nation will be a more urgent issue for Zuma.

Lewis of Johns Hopkins University says Zuma will inherit a country burdened with a 40 percent unemployment rate, even though the official rate is 20 percent to 30 percent.

“There’s a large gap in income, education and health between a small, privileged elite and broad segments of the population that haven’t shared in prosperity in the 15 years since democratization,” he said.

Indeed, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, with many blacks living in impoverished townships while upper-class whites live in protected gated communities. Many of Zuma’s rank-and-file supporters, who call their populist hero “JZ,” believe their man will redistribute South Africa’s wealth — particularly land — in favor of the poor.

Lewis says that “within the ANC are people who’d like to accelerate redistribution and make more assertive efforts to reduce poverty. This is of course a desirable goal, but there’s a risk of moving too fast to redistribute a shrinking pie. So the trick will be to sustain growth.”

Zuma though vows he won’t change current policies if he becomes president. “The land issue is a very serious matter in South Africa. Even before we talk about more land, are we able to ensure that what we’ve done already has been done effectively? If there are gaps, how do we close these gaps?” he mused.

While blacks are still disproportionately poor, on the flip side, whites in South Africa aren’t necessarily too happy either. Talk of “land redistribution” conjures images of Robert Mugabe’s disastrous program of seizing of white-owned land in Zimbabwe, and in contrast to the harmonious “rainbow nation” Mandela once promised, there’s been a steady exodus of whites leaving South Africa complaining of reverse discrimination.

But Ambassador Nhlapo said charges of white South Africans being denied jobs or the right to start businesses have been exaggerated. “People are making an issue out of nothing. There might have been instances where people were excluded from certain positions in preference for a black person,” he said. “But you have to address the imbalance. The Equal Opportunities Act goes beyond race. It deals with all areas of discrimination, including gender and disability. Obviously, everybody’s conscious of the fact that you shouldn’t simply give people jobs when they’re not qualified.”

Zuma also said he’s not interested in turning South Africa into a socialist state, despite what some of his critics have suggested. “When Mandela became president, he was fully supported by the South African Communist Party, but nobody said Mandela was going to deviate to socialism. When Mbeki was to be elected, he was also supported by them, so there’s nothing new today.”

In most other areas though, the cerebral and aloof Mbeki and fiery Zuma couldn’t be any more different. Lewis said that indeed, Zuma represents “an interesting change in approach and style” compared to his predecessor. “Mbeki was a very controversial president. He had very pragmatic economic policies, and many areas of South African policy were well managed. At the same time, he attracted a great deal of controversy because of his views on HIV/AIDS and shortcomings in health policy, not to mention his consistent support for Robert Mugabe. So on regional policy, he got rather bad marks.”

South Africa seems to have made tentative progress getting Mugabe to finally agree to a coalition government, and Nhlapo recently defended his government’s “quiet diplomacy” in a speech at Utah’s Brigham Young University. “In conflict resolution, there are certain things you cannot do, and one of them is take sides,” the ambassador said in response to critics who say South Africa has stood idly by as its neighbor spiraled into chaos. “It is the responsibility of Zimbabwe to solve their problem. At the end of the day, we will leave it up to the people of Zimbabwe to decide.”

Closer to home though, South Africa’s apparent lack of urgency in tackling the HIV/AIDS crisis continues to draw condemnation, with the country beset by one of the highest infection rates in the world.

During his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Zuma was asked what his government would do to slow the spread of HIV, which now infects 23 percent of all South Africans.

“Our HIV/AIDS policy has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization as one of the best,” he replied. “We have a comprehensive program to deal with it. What was said by Mbeki [that AIDS is caused by poverty, not by a virus] was his own personal opinion. People tended to believe that was the policy of the ANC. It was not. We have been trying to clarify the issue ever since.”

Zuma in fact is being looked at to clarify a number of issues that have sullied the image of what was just 15 years ago one of the world’s most inspiring nations. Today though, it’s not South Africa’s racial reconciliation and economic prosperity that make headlines, but rather recent xenophobic riots against Zimbabwean refugees, for instance, electricity shortages and political scandal after political scandal. Zuma — who’s seen by some as the solution and by others as the problem — has vowed to address it all.

“No issues are taboo. No matter what people think about certain views, they must be in the open, for discussion,” he said while in Washington. “If changes have to come, certainly the ANC will deal with them.”

The Diplomat asked Nhlapo if he has any insights into what kind of relationship Zuma might enjoy with Obama, the first African American U.S. president in history.

“Nobody can determine what will be the chemistry between them,” he replied, “just as nobody would have expected there would be good relations between Mbeki and Bush — which was triggered by Mbeki’s visit to Texas when Bush was still governor. Even during the worst of times, something brought them together.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.